Richard Aoki and Lessons for the Movement

The recent releases of information about Richard Aoki have generated quite a stir. For those who haven’t been following and aren’t familiar, Aoki was a well-known Japanese-American radical starting in the 1960s and ’70s who played a key role in the Black Panther Party in the San Francisco Bay Area and who died in 2009. Unexpectedly, on August 20th the journalist Seth Rosenfeld with the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) announced, in conjunction with a book that he was about to publish on the FBI’s historical attacks on student radicals, that FBI documents identify Richard Aoki as an FBI informant.

Richard Aoki

Richard Aoki

The allegations raised a furor on the Left. At the center of the debate was the question of whether the evidence presented by Rosenfeld could be trusted or whether it was misinterpreted and/or manufactured. This debate was fired by the fragmentary nature of the evidence released at that point. Based on that initial evidence, it was broadly felt in the movement that Rosenfeld hadn’t proved his claims.

Subsequently, on September 7, Rosenfeld and CIR released a flood of over 200 pages of further documents from the FBI informant file in question that appear to solidify the most basic claim that Aoki was an FBI informant. There remain unanswered questions and contradictions from these files, illustrating the kind of sloppiness typical of FBI work in general.

To sum up the history, Aoki become an informant by at least 1961 after he had gotten in trouble with the law at a young age. He informed first on the Communist Party and the Socialist Workers Party, and then most importantly on the Black Panther Party. However, there is evidence that as Aoki involved himself more deeply in the movement and became radicalized, the FBI found his reliability as an informant to be increasingly questionable. Ultimately by the early 1970s his role apparently ceased. Various people have speculated that in the latter years of this relationship Aoki may have started acting as a double agent, providing information to the movement about the FBI at the same time he was providing information to the FBI. Aoki became an educator at UC Berkeley and Merritt College and continued for decades raising the political consciousness of subsequent generations of Asian American youth.

The most important value for the movement in discussing Richard Aoki’s history is to draw out political lessons for the future. In that vein, here are some points.

Avoiding both credulity and denialism

These are the two basic dangers in confronting an allegation of snitching. First, it should hopefully go without saying that we should never take information from the FBI or similar enemy sources at face value. It should be scrutinized closely and carefully, preferably by people with relevant knowledge, expertise, and politics. There’s a long history of snitch-jacketing being used as a weapon against the movement. This refers to when an innocent activist is framed as a snitch or agent either by a political rival to undermine them or by an agent in order to sow dissension and divert attention away from himself or herself as an actual agent. It has been a very powerful and destructive tactic at various points, and we need to be sharply on guard against it.

However, in this case the main error that seems to have manifested itself is denialism. Quite a few people, including some who knew Aoki personally, have come out taking the position that the allegation couldn’t possibly be true and that it’s defamation of Aoki’s character even to suggest it. Others have acknowledged the possibility that some of the evidence may be accurate but have felt political pressure to express a one-sided skepticism of the claims.

These positions appear to be driven by a tendency to put Aoki on a pedestal. This is a real danger. We shouldn’t use the defense of the honor of a heroic figure as a measure of our political commitment and ideological purity. One’s ideological stand does not provide answers to questions like these; examination of facts is the only thing that can. The danger here is that if we become one-sidedly skeptical of all such evidence, that creates an opening leaving us more vulnerable to snitches in the future.

What we need to do is keep our brains turned on, and maintain a commitment to rational, dispassionate assessment of evidence. Nobody should be a priori above suspicion, and nobody should be subjected to suspicion without real evidence above and beyond the claim of another individual. It’s also important to remember that even with serious investigation we’re not necessarily going to get a definitive, certain answer, especially in a case like Aoki’s where the events happened decades ago and various people involved are dead. Handling such situations will take thoughtfulness.

A snitch is not the same thing as an agent provocateur

There have been further assertions made by Rosenfeld about Aoki’s role that are important to untangle. Rosenfeld claimed at first that Aoki was not merely informing but was acting as a provocateur, meaning someone actively working to sabotage an organization. Rosenfeld stated in particular that Aoki’s well-established role in providing guns to the Panthers was a purposeful attempt to discredit them. This claim is unsupported by the evidence and by basic logic. Armed self-defense was an intrinsic part of the BPP’s politics and not something that they were tricked into. This claim appears to be driven by Rosenfeld’s white liberal ideology in wanting to depict the practice of armed self-defense in the movement as a departure from a pure nonviolent ideal, as well as by his economic interest in generating buzz and controversy to help him sell his book. These two factors definitely shaped Rosenfeld’s overall distorted interpretation of Aoki’s role. Fortunately, after being challenged by others Rosenfeld appears subsequently to have backed off from some of these claims.

Being a snitch is certainly serious enough, but just because someone is informing doesn’t mean that they’re purposely working to sabotage the movement. Snitches who start out as genuine activists are often enlisted by the state by way of vulnerabilities arising from preexisting threats of criminal prosecution held over their head or from economic distress. If someone is discovered and confirmed to be an active snitch, they should be forced out of the movement and their role publicized so that they can’t do the same to others elsewhere.

An agent provocateur is more serious yet. This might be an actual FBI agent or a civilian in the employ of the state. One recovered COINTELPRO memo from the FBI’s war on the Black Liberation Movement sums up the goal: “Through counter-intelligence it should be possible to pinpoint potential trouble-makers and neutralize them…” If someone is discovered actively trying to disrupt and destroy the movement in active concert with the state, they should be dealt with more harshly than a mere informer, such that future agents might have second thoughts about engaging in disruption.

People make mistakes, but they can also learn and grow

There’s a generalized tendency toward one-sidedness in our thinking that we really need to break out of: Aoki’s either a people’s hero OR he’s a snitch. One of the most important things to emphasize about the Aoki case is that not only did he eventually break off his contact with the FBI, but he also contributed enormously to the movement, as the existing histories about him have covered in depth. Aoki himself, when asked in an interview if he had been an informer, captured a vital point: “People change. It is complex. Layer upon layer.”

When people make mistakes but are able to show through their practice that they have genuinely corrected them and have gone on to make substantial contributions, our general approach should be to set those previous mistakes aside. Let’s not fall into the bourgeoisie’s error of punishment for the sake of punishment. The fundamental principle we should follow is the advancement of the interests of the people. Everything else is in service of that goal. Regardless of whether someone has made mistakes in the past, if they are now contributing positively toward that goal and present the prospect of continuing to do so in the future, they should be welcome in the movement.

Even more than that, such people should even be held up as paragons. We’re trying to transform a sick society into a healthy one; individuals who have made their own transformation into true servants of the people are living examples that such transformation is possible. Such people are of great value to the movement. So we should reject any assessment of Richard Aoki that seeks now, as a result of the new evidence, to cast him and his legacy aside while also rejecting those assessments which dismiss evidence to the contrary without a thorough examination.

Limiting the damage agents can do

We can’t completely prevent snitches and agents from entering the movement. One of our tasks is thus to figure out how to organize ourselves to minimize the impact that such people can have.

Most fundamentally, we should use social practice as the most basic criterion for assessing people, not just whether someone can talk a good line. This is what we should be doing under any circumstances. Where agents do infiltrate our organizations, holding everyone to a high standard of practice will force them to do significant good work that benefits the movement in order to maintain their cover.

Here are some signs we should watch for:

• Systematically divisive behavior, setting one person against another, talking behind people’s backs about them to other people (note that encouraging principled debate about substantive political questions is a wholly different matter)

• Lack of a reputable background, having appeared seemingly from nowhere.

• Vague and dodging responses to questions about one’s background, attacking the questioner, or giving background stories that don’t hold up to subsequent investigation.

• Pushing to quickly take up positions of authority in the organization without having spent a fair amount of time earning one’s stripes. [This is a failure of the organizational model as well…]

• Pushing for illegal activity that seems to depart from where the majority of the group is at and what’s appropriate to the current level of the struggle; offering resources to engage in that activity, particularly resources of mysterious origin.

• Fingering other people as agents without clear evidence.

• Lack of interest in helping other people develop their leadership, political understanding, and general skills.

As discussed previously, a balance needs to be found between appropriately scrutinizing suspicious behavior and not falling into paranoia or falling victim to snitch jacketing. We also need to be careful not treat as agents those who engage in destructive behavior simply due to incorrect ideas, bad judgment, or psychological/emotional difficulties. Such people should be criticized, struggled with in a constructive way, and helped so that they can improve their practice.

The bottom-line lesson to take away from the Aoki controversy is that snitches and agents are a real thing that we need to deal with in a practical, principled, and serious way. They are not just something that took place in decades gone by, as the experiences with the snitch Brandon Darby in the demonstrations against the 2008 Republican Convention, undercover FBI agent Karen Sullivan in the Twin Cities Antiwar Committee, and others in the recent period have shown. Because Richard Aoki grew as a person and eventually broke off his relationship with the FBI, we should continue to hold him up as a model of oppressed-nationality revolutionary unity. We can learn not only from his early mistake in informing but even more from the great contributions he went on to make to the revolutionary cause.

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